WHY VISIT IOWA
Easy-going Iowa is a classic, Midwest mix of sprawling cornfields, picturesque prairies, and traditional towns, neatly connected by a network of scenic byways and trails.
Iowa has a veritable pick and mix of road trips. The Mississippi River winds down the state’s eastern border; along its shore, the Great River Road passes 19th-century river towns, prehistoric Indian mounds, chugging paddleboats, and rocky cliffs, where you can catch sight of soaring bald eagles in winter.
Alternatively, you might discover Iowa’s Danish and German heritage on the Western Skies Scenic Byway or drift around the Driftless Area, a region of Iowa renowned for its limestone bluffs and tree-blanketed valleys.
Or how about a jaunt down Route 6, which winds 5,877km (3,652 miles) from Massachusetts to California? Iowa’s chunk boasts its share of quirky roadside attractions, including the world’s oldest ice cream fountain and a 5m-tall (16ft) gas station man. Iowa’s wacky sights don’t stop there. There’s also the world’s largest bull (Albert, built in 1964), a 4m-tall (13ft) wine bottle (also a statue, sadly), and the planet’s teeniest church.
Pretty Iowa City is North America’s only UNESCO City of Literature and is an essential stop for budding scribes, who can join one of the University of Iowa’s renowned writers’ workshops. The Lycra brigade is also well catered for: the state boasts more than 2,900km (1,800 miles) of bike trails through native woodlands, wetlands, trestle bridges, open prairies, and farmland. Stop pedaling to pick apples or glug cider at dozens of orchards.
Taste a bit of everything at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, a regenerated industrial site turned buzzing market, stuffed with local produce, eateries, artists’ studios, and performance spaces. Or cycle alongside horse-drawn buggies in Amish and Mennonite communities and bag yourself some baked treats.
WHAT TO SEE IN IOWA
- Madison County: few scenes are as picturesque and timeless as a rural covered bridge crossing a meandering river. Madison County is home to five of these beauties that all date back to the 1880s and are protected as National Historic Landmarks. The town of Winterset is the best base for exploring the area, especially in October when the Covered Bridges Festival takes place. Fans of writer Robert James Waller’s novels will recognize much of the scenery from the aptly named, Bridges of Madison County.
- Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and Grant Wood Studio: the famous American painter Grant Wood was a native son of Iowa best known for his iconic work American Gothic. Cedar Rapids’ main art gallery has the world’s leading collection of Wood’s paintings along with plenty of other well-known artists from the Midwest such as Marvin Cone, Mauricio Lasansky, and James Swann. The gallery’s location downtown along the river is reason enough to visit, as the park-like grounds are ideal for an afternoon stroll.
- Des Moines Art Center: Iowa’s most impressive repository of art is found in its main city Des Moines. The Des Moines Art Center was co-designed by I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and Eliel Saarinen. The architectural masterpiece is arguably the highlight of the museum and the building accentuates the genius of Matisse, Rothko, Richter, and other great masters from around the world. The Pappajohn Sculpture Park outside and sculptures by Rodin inside are also big attractions.
- National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library: Iowa is home to one of America’s largest communities of Czech immigrants and this fascinating attraction is on the edge of Cedar Rapids. The museum is located within Czech Village, a scenic historic settlement right on the Cedar River, and is America’s leading institute of Czech and Slovak heritage and history. One of the museum’s highlights is a perfectly restored 19th-century immigrant home, but just the old-world ambiance of the village itself is worth a trip.
- Amana Colonies: one of America’s most unique religious groups, the Inspirationists, settled along the Iowa River in the 19th century. Similar to the Amish, this colony of freedom-seeking Germans has managed to preserve its entire 500-building community from the 1880s. It’s like a time capsule of rural communal living from another era, and visitors are welcome to explore it. Begin at the Amana Colonies Welcome Center to get some background on the sect and then venture out into the seven villages to shop for exquisite crafts, art, and food products while savoring the unique atmosphere.
- Iowa State Capitol: the twin gold-covered domes of Iowa’s lovely State Capitol building are one of Des Moines’ top sights. Inside, visitors are encouraged to take the hour-long guided tour that includes odd attractions like the First Lady’s extensive doll collection. The grounds are also pleasant to explore and contain several monuments dedicated to fallen soldiers. Be sure and check out the State Historical Building, as well for a museum-like look at the surprisingly colorful history of Iowa.
- Field of Dreams: the original movie set of the Field of Dreams has been transformed into one of Iowa’s most popular tourist attractions. A pilgrimage for baseball fans, visitors are actually allowed to play on the field from April through November. Future developments will add training fields and there are plans to hold seasonal tournaments on the surrounding property. However, the original movie diamond will remain unchanged.
WHEN TO GO TO IOWA
The best period to visit Iowa is from May to October.
Like most of the American Midwest, Iowa has a typical humid continental climate. This means hot summers and cold, snowy winters. Spring is a mixed bag of precipitation and temperatures, while fall is generally the nicest season of the year. Summers in Iowa is hot and sticky, with daytime highs averaging 90°F from June through August and frequent rain. Humidity levels in the 90 percent range create truly uncomfortable sweaty conditions, but the locals learn to live with it.
Winters are unpleasant at the other end of the spectrum. Daytime highs rarely make it out of the mid-’30s (°F) between December and February, with temperatures at night dropping well below freezing. Intense snowstorms regularly roll across the entire state causing blizzard conditions. Springtime brings the most unpredictable weather patterns to Iowa, beginning in late March and running through May. Though temperatures warm up to the ’50s (°F) and ’60s (°F) by April, this is when intense thunderstorms typically arrive. Iowa gets an average of 37 tornadoes during the spring and summer, and at least 50 days of severe thunderstorms.
WHAT TO DO IN IOWA
Try all the food at the Iowa State Fair
Midwestern state fairs are annual highlights in much of the country’s midsection, showcases of agriculture and deep-fried everything interspersed with midway rides and live music. Iowa is arguably the most famous, spanning 14 glorious August days in Des Moines. This year’s culinary newcomers include a chicken sandwich on a donut, a potato stuffed with brisket, a pork parfait with pulled pork and baked beans and an alligator corn dog. There’s also nightly concerts which range from Brooks & Dunn to Demi Lovato. To make the most of your trip here, hit the rides before trying that pork parfait.
Following is a list of typical festivals and celebrations of Iowa.
- Des Moines Art Festival: each June, the Western Gateway Park in downtown Des Moines is the venue for one of the state’s top arts and crafts fairs. More than 150 artists set up stalls to show off and sell their creations to the public. The fair runs for three days and is free to enter. Three stages hold daily concerts and there are special activities to keep the kids occupied.
- Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival: one of the big parties in the state occurs each June and July to coincide with America’s Independence Day celebration. From June 21 to July 4, downtown Cedar Rapids enjoys daily parades, outdoor concerts, barbecue competitions, and more than 75 different family activities. This is Cedar Rapid’s big event, and worth planning a trip around.
- Burlington Steamboat Days: this all-American town along the banks of the Mississippi River holds one of Iowa’s most popular music festivals every June. Outdoor stages are set up along the water, hosting a broad range of musical acts from jazz and blues to country and golden oldie groups. A parade, fireworks, and lots of kid-friendly events make this a fun festival for everyone.
- Jazz in July: Iowa’s top jazz fest happens in Des Moines every July. Most of the concerts are free, held indoors and outdoors at venues around the city. Dozens of musicians come to this respected event including world-renowned legends in the genre.
- Iowa State Fair: running for over 150 years, the Iowa State Fair is one of America’s oldest and is widely considered the best in the country. And in a state that values farming as much as Iowa, are you surprised? From August 9-19, the fairgrounds of Des Moines are transformed into a massive carnival. There are amusement rides, live concerts, a livestock show, a huge art show, plenty of hearty food, fireworks, and more.
- Clay County Fair: another strong contender for the best fair in Iowa happens every September at the Clay Country Fairgrounds in the little town of Spencer. Established more than a century ago, it’s regarded by most locals as the must-see event of the year. It’s a massive production with live concerts, chuck wagon races, rodeos, arts and crafts stalls, carnival food, and much more.
HOW TO REACH AND TRAVEL THROUGH IOWA
Iowa is well situated for drivers coming to the state by road. Interstate 35 runs north to south right through the center of the state, while Interstate 80 passes from east to west. From these two major highways, it’s easy to reach any town in Iowa, making driving a good option for travelers who want to see more of the state and have the flexibility to reach out-of-city attractions like the Amana Colonies. Car rental firms are readily available at the airports and downtown areas of all the main cities. The only time driving can be tricky is during winter (November to February), when road conditions can suddenly get icy or become a full snow-blown mess. You can dial 511 anytime to get an accurate update of the state’s driving conditions.
Taxis will only be available in Des Moines and a few other major cities like Iowa City and Cedar Rapids.
The bus is the most common form of long-distance transportation to reach Iowa and move around the state between cities. Besides the pervasive Greyhound bus, travelers can also choose Burlington Trailways, Jefferson Lines, or the Megabus (connecting Des Moines, Iowa City, and Chicago). All of these companies have very affordable fares and can reach even the smallest country town. Seats are comfy enough for a few hours, but buses don’t have bathrooms and only stop at designated towns.
If time is on your side, you can reach Iowa by Amtrak train. Though it’s not particularly convenient, you can take the Chicago to Dubuque trunk line to connect to several major cross-country Amtrak routes. Amtrak’s Chicago to San Francisco trip stops at Creston, Ottumwa, Mt Pleasant, and Burlington in the southeast corner of the state.
Des Moines, Iowa City, Dubuque, and a couple of other large cities have public bus systems that cover most of their territory. While certainly good value, the public bus is not particularly useful for tourists unless you are staying in a hotel right downtown. These routes are designed to connect residential areas to the downtown core so unless you’re headed to the suburbs, nearly every visitor rents a car when they come to town.
Main airports are:
GENERAL INFORMATION ON IOWA
health tips & vaccination: none
local currency: US Dollar
local time zone: GMT-6 (-5)
electricity: type A and type B (120V – 60 Hz)
WHAT TO DO IN IOWA
Typical food in Iowa
Souvenirs from Iowa